Closing the STEM Gap through Skilled Volunteerism

How pro bono service can build capacity while supporting diversity and inclusion

Around the world, employers are seeking to enlist workers with relevant skills for existing and emerging roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, also known as STEM. According to the CECP 2017 Giving in Numbers report, workforce development and education, particularly as related to STEM, are two of the largest focal areas for corporate and foundation giving. These are also two of the largest mission focus areas for nonprofits. In spite of such determined investment and effort, gaps persist, leaving employers and students without the critical thinking and applied skills needed to propel our evolving global economy.

Skills-based volunteerism has emerged as a promising strategy to help bridge this divide. Common Impact, a national nonprofit working toward a society in which individuals and businesses invest their talents to strengthen communities, has developed strategic partnerships to engage business professionals in creating positive community change. The organization had identified two major STEM education challenges that skilled volunteerism can address: building capacity within the social sector to effectively deliver STEM education, and using the act of this service itself to increase representation of women and diverse communities in both the social and corporate sectors.

Photo by George Joch courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Skills-based volunteerism to build STEM-focused nonprofit capacity
Skills-based volunteerism helps build social sector capacity to deliver effective STEM education programs. Stretched perennially for operating budgets, social sector organizations tend to skimp on investments in infrastructure—operations, marketing, human resources, and technology—sometimes spending as little as two percent of their annual budgets, compared to an average investment of 35 percent in the corporate sector. The bitter reality is by focusing on STEM programming without continuing to invest in internal capacity, nonprofits place their very missions at risk.

Skills-based volunteering can help bridge this funding gap by providing critical consulting and functional expertise for resource-constrained nonprofits. By leveraging professional skills like marketing, human resources, or technology, in addition to engaged volunteer time, a nonprofit can significantly increase its community impact. In fact, the value of a skilled volunteer hour, at an estimated $150, is roughly six times the value of a traditional, unskilled volunteer hour, valued at approximately $25 as calculated by The Independent Sector.

Common Impact has witnessed the effectiveness of pro bono service first-hand in volunteer engagements like the partnership between State Street Bank and Science Club for Girls, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that fosters excitement, confidence, and literacy in STEM for girls from underrepresented communities. The organization increases access to STEM education for girls by providing free, experiential programs and facilitating meaningful interactions with women mentors working in STEM careers.

With a target population of girls from historically underrepresented backgrounds in STEM education, Science Club for Girls had used simple spreadsheets to track program data, which proved redundant, inefficient, and time-consuming. The organization’s leaders realized that to grow, they needed to transition away from the decentralized and error-prone data-tracking model to a unified database. Although the identified need was apparent, the nonprofit team struggled to find the technical skills and capacity to tackle this project on its own.

The State Street team worked with Science Club for Girls to select, customize, and launch a Salesforce database to capture and report program metrics. The Science Club for Girls now names being “data driven” as a key value for their staff interactions and nonprofit operations. The new database enables the organization to gain insight not only for internal and external communications and decision-making, but also to expand services to their target population. The Science Club for Girls has expanded their programming to engage 300 more girls from their target population since implementing the new technology. The estimated social return on investment for this partnership was $40,250—clearly demonstrating the amplification of impact that skilled volunteering can deliver.

 In fiscal year 2016, 78 percent of our participants are from our target population…compared to 72 percent in the previous year. In terms of girls, we are engaging 300 more girls from our target population this year!

— Lonsdale Koester, Executive Director of the Science Club for Girls

Skills-based volunteerism to diversify STEM leadership
STEM education also holds great promise in helping to achieve gender equality and workforce diversification for both the corporate and social sectors. One great example of this work in action is through a Common Impact-brokered partnership between Fidelity Investments and First North Carolina.

A Greensboro-based nonprofit, First North Carolina planned to rapidly scale its STEM education programs across the state, but recognized that to do so it needed a centralized and sophisticated database that could effectively grow with the organization. At the same time, Fidelity was seeking an opportunity to cultivate and retain its talented female technology team. Struggling to achieve the highest levels of leadership within the firm, these high potential and high performing leaders were becoming more difficult to retain. The company recognized this challenge and took a proactive approach to build their confidence and reputations through leadership skills development.

From these two needs, a complementary relationship was forged. The all-female Fidelity team of seven engaged in a four-month volunteer project designed to empower them with a true sense of purpose as community leaders, providing opportunities to form new relationships with colleagues, and supporting their upward mobility at the company. In return, First North Carolina received a new database that tracks and reports on critical program data, saving countless hours of staff time, enabling leadership to have a clear dashboard on program outcomes, and creating the necessary foundation for growth. The Fidelity team reported that their involvement on the project was a useful professional development opportunity and made them more inclined to recommend the company as a great place to work. First North Carolina reported a marked difference in data and program growth thanks to the project. Their estimated social return on investment totaled $58,950.

Our team was very passionate about empowering females to become leaders within their fields.

—Fidelity Associate

Recent volunteer trends point to a rise in interest for skills-based engagements with more than 50 percent of companies with skilled volunteer programs in place and more than 4 million professionals expressing interest in pro bono service via LinkedIn. Given the success witnessed in technology-focused partnerships, this innovative and cross-sector approach to nonprofit capacity building can help close the STEM education gap and build a new generation of diverse and qualified STEM leaders.


This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.

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